The barracks of Berhampore

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The idea of constructing a cantonment in Berhampore emerged after the battle of Plassey, when the English found it necessary to erect a defensive structure in Murshidabad, ‘capable of resisting any force the country Government could bring against it.’ This is how Captain Brohier divulged the plan of a fort at Berhampore to Mr. Drake. The old fort at Cossimbazar had been pulled down during the reign of Siraj-ud-Dowla and the cost of repairing the forts and the factories inside it would be more than constructing a complete ‘pentagon from the foundation on an open plain’. [i] With this in mind a grant of 400 bighas was obtained from the Nawab Mir Jafar in the form of sanad. However the proposition to build a cantonment in Berhampore was not well received by the Court of Directors of East India Company sitting in London, they replied rather uncaringly, ‘we cannot avoid remarking that you seem so thoroughly possessed with military ideas as to forget your employers are merchants, and trade their principal object, and were we to adopt your several plans of fortifying, half of our capital would be buried in stone walls.’ The Court clearly was not quite happy with the huge expense of construction besides Berhampore being too far from Calcutta. However after the war with Mir Qasim the company finally understood the necessity of building a fort near Murshidabad to keep the future Nawabs in check.

According to Hunter’s Statistical Account of Bengal-“The barracks took two years in building, being completed in 1767, and were at the time looked upon as the northern frontier station of the Bengal army. The cost amounted to enormous sum of 3,02,270 pounds, the price of materials three times as much in Calcutta. In 1768 the Chief of Murshidabad appointed a committee to inquire into the exorbitant charges which had been made, and three covenanted officials were suspended, for overcharges amounting to two Lakhs of Rupees.”

The top view of the Barracks with the square field at the centre

The researches of the Rev. W K Firminger have, however proved that the barracks cannot have been fully completed by the date mentioned above.[ii] A reference to the press lists shows that in 1770 estimates for the construction of a palisade and a moat round the cantonments were drawn up, and were followed by the submission of indents, while the committee of works at Berhampore wrote a little later about the rate of brickwork. In April 1772 orders were issued to the Chief and council at Cossimbazar that no new foundations were to be laid Berhampore. The consultations of 21st August contain three important letters, viz-(1) a letter from the Chief Engineer , Colonel A Campbell submitting an estimate of the cost of                  completing the cantonment of Berhampore, (2) a letter submitting a proposal for making a ditch and stockade palisade round them instead of a brick wall, and (3) the draft of a letter to the Comittee of Circuit inquiring what further buildings are, in their opinion, indispensably necessary for the accommodation of the Brigade at Berhampore,   and requesting that steps to be taken supply the required materials. Finally on 22nd March 1773 Lieutenant George Russell, Superintendent of Works at Berhampore, reports to the Chief and Council of Cossimbazar the cost of completing the building of the cantonments. They are described as follows in the Seir-ul-Mutaqerin-“The barracks of Berhampore are the finest and the healthiest that any Nation can boast of. They contain two regiments of Europeans, seven or eight sepoys and fifteen or sixteen cannon. And yet I have heard men say that the Musalmans are so numerous at Murshidabad, that with brick bats in their hands they could knock the English down.”

In February 1857 in Berhampore, the sepoys of the Barrack at Berhampore rose up against their British Masters. The Sepoy Mutiny, as in the general opinion it started from Barrackpore, but that is partly true, as the first spark of the Mutiny was seen in Berhampore. Later, in the coming months the spark caused huge explosions in Barrackpore and some months after in Meerut.  The popular story behind the Sepoy Mutiny begins with the order from the Government to replace the old Brown Bess rifle of the infantry with the newly designed Enfield 1853 pattern. Brown Bess flintlock muskets had served the British infantry for more than hundred years; a number of important wars were fought with this rifle including the battle of Waterloo. However the newly designed Enfield had number of advantages over the Brown Bess, it had great range well about 2000 yards. It used the percussion cap instead of flintlock, and was lighter in weight than the Brown Bess, so in all ways quite handy. But there was one thing related to it and that was the paper cartridge, in Enfield it had cylindrical paper packet containing the powder and the ball over it. A sepoy was expected to tear off the packet to separate the bullet from the powder. A rumor had spread in the sepoy’s quarters that this cartridge was greased with fat of pig and cow, suggesting that a Hindu or a Muslim sepoy trying to tear off the cartridge would lose his caste in the process.

The basis and source of this news is certainly not beyond doubt, but we can get an idea of the apprehension, by looking at the social difference between the British and the Natives of that time. There was enormous cultural dissimilarity between the two; it was also the time when the British had introduced many new Western thinking into the Indian society, especially into the Bengali society. The widow remarriage was made legal, which was vehemently opposed and resisted by many orthodox Bengali Hindus. The education machinery had started running with the objective of creating educated Indians, of creating an Indian section sympathetic to Company rule. In the military, the rules of the game were changed, the dress of the native sepoys were made like Western infantry, the drills, the weapons, the army structure everything was Westernised. Though the Native infantry had fought so many wars with British commanders following Western method of warfare, but still inside they were the same Indian sepoys, who were passionate about religion, culture and traditions.

                In this atmosphere of wide social difference there was always an apprehension in the minds of general public that the British Government by hook or crook wishes to make the entire populace Christian. The widow remarriage act, the doctrine of lapse, equal treatment before law irrespective of caste had made them infer that here is a bunch of people who wants to make us like them. The sense of security was gone when they saw that their one time masters, nobles, Sultans were dragged out of the office and their territories annexed. The Company had cut short the luxuries, territories, and prestige of the Nawab of Murshidabad, they had annexed Awadh and transported Wajid Ali Shah to Calcutta.

                This was the picture then, after Lord Dalhousie left India for London, and Lord Canning was due coming in. Lord Canning before coming to India had probably guessed the social situation out here, in a banquet to mark his new posting in August 1855 in London, Canning said, “We must not forget that in the sky of India, serene as it is, a cloud may arise, at first no bigger than a man’s hand, but which growing bigger and bigger may last threaten us with ruin.”[iii] He came to India on 5th February 1856 and a year later the dark cloud did arrive to pour hellfire upon the Company. Before his arrival the weapon of war, the new Enfield had reached India, not in one’s and two’s but about 10,000 in number. [iv]That reached Meerut first; the sepoys over there of the Bengal Army were already using it. And thereafter this rumor spread, it spread like wildfire, gripped Calcutta, Dum Dum, Barackpore, all military corners. Some office buildings were set to fire, the native soldiers were going in and out of barracks joining secret meetings, in this atmosphere of suspicion and distrust, a detachment of the 34th Infantry Regiment from Barrackpore arrived Berhampore on 25th February 1857.

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‘View of the Cantonments at Berhampore’. Aquatint, drawn and engraved by James Moffat, published Calcutta 1806.source British Library

                Berhampore was a cantonment town for long, the sepoys of the 19thNative Infantry was staying here under British commanders. Point to be noted is- it was all native army station in Berhampore, there were no Europeans except officers, a detachment of irregular cavalry was there in Panchanantala that too under a British officer. So when the 34th reached Berhampore, their colleagues here in Berhampore inquisitively learned about the Government alleged plan to change their caste. In fact the 34th did narrate the whole atmosphere of Barrackpore to be extremely volatile, that every sepoy over there was boiling with outrage. Therefore as we understand only a spark was needed to ignite the barrel of gunpowder.

                On the 26th of February, Colonel Mitchell commanding officer at Berhampore ordered the 19th Infantry for a parade with, “blank ammunition” on the following morning. It was a custom in this 19thregiment that if a parade was announced on the following day, then the ammunitions were distributed in the evening and percussion caps on the morning of the parade day. After the ammunitions were supplied to them it created a big fuss in the infantry quarters. The 19th refused to comply with the orders and this news of insubordination was passed onto Colonel Mitchell by a native officer. Colonel Mitchell on the evening of 26thFebruary summoned the native commissioned and non commissioned officers and explained that the information was not true, that it was just a rumour, and going a step ahead warned if the infantry do not obey the command ( to take the ammunition) he would be forced to court martial everyone. He had also asked the native officers to pass on the information to their comrades, that the cartridges were a year old made by native themselves, and there was no way the Government tried to interfere in their religious matter. However in the air of confusion and mistrust the news that reached the sepoys was- if they don’t obey the order they will be sent to Burma or China where they would perish. This further instigated them.

                At around 10 pm in the night the sepoys broke the ammunition chamber seized all the rifles and assembled indiscriminately in open. You can picture hundreds of sepoys; well over seven to eight hundred, with torches, rifles, screaming, yelling, making mess in square field and the surrounding area. Berhampore suddenly had become a hot bed. Colonel Mitchell understood that sepoys had risen and he needed immediate help, an order was sent to the Irregular Cavalry stationed at Panchanantala to come at the site. When the cavalry reached the spot it was around eleven or twelve at night, dark and pitch black, not a soul could be seen clearly save the fire of burning torches. The behaviour of the sepoys here was very surprising; maybe they were confused about their next action. Whether or not to directly engage the company officers put them to the sword or just to flee?  They could have done it have they wished, the night was very dark which would make the organized cavalry charge impossible, and they all were already scattered. The Sepoys quite simply could have ran away or knock down the Cavalry. The point to remember is the Cavalry force also comprised of all natives commanded by a handful of Englishmen.

               Colonel Mitchell had an unprecedented situation before him, he had to act, and act immediately. He had already called for the Cavalry now he asked for the artillery to be brought and placed at a distance overlooking the sepoy lines. The thud of the Cavalry and the moving of the guns made the assembled sepoys further restless they began to cry out, “do not move we would kill you. “ Colonel Mitchell faced the angry mob, he first ordered them to drop their guns, but they did not relent. They had their fears that if they let go their rifles they would be shot down like clay pigeons. However in these clamour and confusion, both the parties agreed to withdraw from the field, a bit unsystematically. The guns were carried off, and the disgruntled sepoys started to move inside the barracks.

                By three o’clock all the sepoys had retired inside the barracks, a parade was ordered next morning. In the following morning the soldiers did perform the parade, the Colonel did salute and everything was normal as if nothing of that nature had occurred. The news of this outbreak reached Calcutta by 4thMarch and the Government immediately decided to punish the mutineers. To discipline the mutineers the Government needed a full European regiment, and that Regiment was nowhere in the hundred and twenty miles distance between Berhampore and Calcutta. They were to be brought from Rangoon, the Highlanders. Finally the punishment was ordered, the sepoys of the 19thRegiment marched ahead to Barrackpore and later in 31stMarch they were disbanded.

                Colonel Mitchell’s conduct during the outburst was put to inquiry, in his defence he assured the court that he made no bargains with the mutineers, neither did he compromise, and it was pointed that the mutineers had indeed ‘surrendered’. There can be a doubt whether or not his defence was absolutely true, but there is no doubt over the fact that he did face an extraordinary situation, a situation which demanded shrewdness rather than military knowledge. Mitchell had only two hundred men under him, who could be ‘trusted’, but the mutineers numbered 800. Could he better manage the show with only two hundred men against eight hundred?

                In Barrackpore the situation had gone worse, on Sunday, the 29th of March a sepoy named Mangal Pandey had opened fire on the sergeant major and had rolled the wheel of The Sepoy Mutiny, one and half month later in May the revolt had spread to Meerut.

                After the Mutiny, European troops were again stationed at Berhampore, and it continued to be a cantonment till 1870, when it was finally abandoned as a military station. After this, the cantonment, which intervened between the two blocks then making up the muinciplaity, viz Berhampore and Gorabazar, to the south, was brought within municipal limits. It is still known as Garh Berhampore. The town was also the headquarters of the Rajshahi division until 1875, when the district was, transferred to the Presidency division.

                The buildings or barracks are arranged in a way, as sides of a square (each of 332 meters approximately) in the centre of which lies a green square field meant for military parades. As you see in the map there are three, two storied buildings (1a, 1b and 1c) in the east which were barracks for the soldiers, in the west buildings labelled 4a, 4b and 4c were meant for generals. The buildings in the north (3a, 3b and 3c) and south (2a, 2b, and 2c) were quarters for the captains in the army. Somewhere around the place labelled 6 ( on the bank of what is now Laldighi) was a six pounder field gun which banged twice a day, first proclaiming the light of the dawn the second in the evening which was also the time for soldiers to go to bed.

          The buildings of the generals were near to the river Bhagirathi as you can see, with spacious gardens in the rear. In some buildings of the captains there were even fireplaces. Initially a large number of Europeans troops were stationed here, but with time their population decreased, however most prominent of them were the celebrated Royal Northumberland Fusiliers. These barracks initially built with the idea to check any local uprising was mainly used as a resting place for British commanders or troops awaiting orders to march elsewhere like in Afghanistan and so on. After 1857 European troops were again stationed in Berhampore, they continued to be there till 1870 when Berhampore was abandoned as a military station. The buildings in west end were sold to Messrs. Louis Pay en & Co., the rest to London Missionary society and the one marked 4a which was once occupied by Robert Clive, became the District Magistrate’s office [sic]. As of the three buildings in the east they were transformed to government office, magisterial courts and municipal office. Currently even more changes have happened; some old buildings have been pulled down and new are erected.

Notes:

[i] Selections from unpublished records of government for the years 1748-1767 inclusive of the social condition of Bengal, By James Long.

[ii] BENGAL DISTRICT GAZETTEERS, Murshidabad by Lewis Sydney Steward O Malley, Calcutta, The Bengal Secretariat Book Depot, 1914.

[iii] The British Quarterly Review,January and April 1865.

[iv] Allens Indian Mail, October 20,1855.

Sumit Soren is the founder of Livelystories. Basically an Agricultural Engineer, Sumit has interest in varied topics. He regularly writes on tribal history, internet and science related topics.

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